The Renaissance of the Travel Agent

I don’t usually write about travel trade shows, but recently I traveled to Minnesota to answer a question: Is the option to book your vacation through an airline a good idea? We’ve all been disappointed by an airline, whether it be mechanical or weather-related delays, change fees, natural disasters, or last-minute booking price gouging. So, why make the airline your vacation ally?

MLT Vacations—a wholly owned subsidiary of Delta Air Lines that operates Delta Vacations—hosted its annual MLT University, a three-day conference with classes to fine-tune the fine art of being a travel agent. Rumor has it that, as the Internet isn’t always a traveler’s ally, travel agents are not only making a comeback but many of them are flourishing. The 21st annual MLT University proved that airlines are not the enemy of modern travel agents. Instead, I discovered that the education aspect of this long-weekend university (even if you’re not a travel agent) is really about increasing awareness for everyone in the travel business, including the consumer. I’m guessing that one-in-10 vacations are botched by some sort of flight dilemma. When it happens—pardon my slang—who ya’ gonna call?

Vacation providers, like Delta Vacations, have resources well beyond most travel agents and agencies, including marketing, technology, and the ability to leverage wholesale relationships with the airlines, convention and visitors bureaus, hotel and resort suppliers, rental car companies, and tour and excursion operators. Travel agents can rely on companies like Delta Vacations to vet, rate, and ensure all of the properties offered are up to snuff on operational standards and customer service delivery.

Here’s why you may want to consider book a Delta Vacations and having your airline as your on-the-road advocate…

A flight delay or cancellation can seriously disrupt a vacation. Once the reality of your flight problem sinks in, the next emotional punch is the nightmare of cancelling or delaying your ground transportation and hotel reservation. Who do you get in touch with, especially if your destination is in a foreign country? If this happens to you, and you have booked it yourself online, then you have a lot of calls to make if you’re going to reschedule your flights, your hotels, your ground transportation, and anything else you may have planned for your vacation. However, when you book through a travel agency or Delta Vacations, you only have to make one call, and they’ve got your back.

Well, not only is Delta Vacations the first to know about any flight problems, they’re likely communicating with your hotel before you even know about the delay. Thanks to their advanced weather forecasting models, and that pilots can see weather from above, this information is shared with all concerned parties. “As the official vacations provider for Delta, Delta Vacations has access to the airline’s global and meteorological and forecasting resources,” says John Caldwell, President of Delta Vacations. “All of this information, bolstered by real-time pilot feedback from around the world, is shared with Delta Vacations’ state-of-the-art customer engagement center for consumers and travel agents.” According to him, the customer engagement center is perhaps the company’s biggest strategic asset. “Our agents are well-trained, know the destinations first-hand, and are a huge resource for all of our customers before, during, and after their vacations,” says Caldwell. Additionally, Delta has reshaped its entire model so they no longer cancel flights.

Along with support before, during, and after a vacation, when you purchase a vacation package with Delta Vacations, whether through a travel agency or online, you’ll have the opportunity to earn redeemable miles along with bonus miles. SkyMiles members can earn up to 3,000 bonus miles for qualifying vacation packages and up to 7,500 bonus miles on qualifying luxury vacation packages. As the official vacation provider for Delta, Delta vacations helps SkyMiles members earn toward medallion status.

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The airline you choose stands on the frontlines of your vacation. And, you can still use a traditional travel agent to personalize this process. Caldwell added that “MLT was founded in 1969 as Mainline Travel. MLT Vacations was acquired by Northwest Airlines in 1985. The company was then absorbed by Delta Air Lines during its merger with Northwest in 2008. Delta Vacations was founded in 2000.”

Airlines have always used capacity pricing (charging the least for the first seat booked and the most for the last), and Amtrak and bus lines are now mimicking this strategy. So we can no longer single out the airlines for this sensible but sometimes unnerving strategy.

Eighty percent of Delta Vacations are booked directly through travel agents; the remaining 20 percent are booked online. At MLT University, more than 2,000 travel agents choose from more than 50 destination, specialty, and business development course offerings each day, and the program replicates for three days so no opportunity is missed. Travel agents fly in from all over the U.S. and the range of destinations showcased include Mexico, the Caribbean, Hawaii, and Europe.

Numerous destinations aside, classes include Marketing & Social Media Solutions, Selling Niche/Specialty Vacations, divers, and LGBT: Selling More with Pride. The instructor for the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans Gender) class noted that the acronym now ends with a Q (for anyone questioning their sexuality). This community spent 200 billion travel dollars in 2013. This factoid is telling. In the U.S., 85 percent of gay men and 77% of lesbians own passports. The overall national average for passport ownership hovers around 15 percent.

The conference also features three lunchtime keynote speakers who informed and entertained. The accolades for each one the 2014 MLT University keynote speakers reproved that Delta Vacations is not trying to cut corners in trying to enhance your next vacation.

The university is about empowering travel agents and teaching them how to market to the variety of travel communities. After the class sessions—daily at 3pm—the travel agents are invited to then peruse two-acres of exhibitor booths showcasing vacation properties and attractions from around the world.

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Delta flies 165 million passengers per year; they’re not rookies. Additionally, you also have Delta’s SkyTeam partner airlines—Air France, KLM, Alitalia, AeroMexico—to expand the scope of your holiday. There’s a notion that vacation packages are all cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all. Not the case with Delta Vacations, with thousands of flight and hotel choices, and hundreds of destinations, activities, and tours that can be bundled, travelers can tailor their own vacations to fit just about any budget and lifestyle.

Most other airlines are also in the business of planning and booking vacations, including American Airlines Vacations and United Vacations.

PS, Minneapolis is a great conference city. Specifically, from the super-comfortable Hilton Minneapolis (aim for a corner room), you can use the city’s extended system of elevated and enclosed walkways (human habit-trails) for the five-minute stroll to the convention center. And, they just built a light-rail connector between Minneapolis and St. Paul

bruce northam

Bruce Northam is the award-winning journalist and author of The Directions to Happiness: A 135-Country Quest for Life Lessons, Globetrotter Dogma, In Search of Adventure, and The Frugal Globetrotter. He also created “American Detour,” a show revealing the travel writer’s journey. His keynote speech, Directions to Your Destination, reveals the many shades of the travel industry and how to entice travelers. Northam’s other live presentation, Street Anthropology, is an ode to freestyle wandering. Visit